Google Analytics

Monday 23 August 2021

Walking In Iceland 6: Eldgjá and Álftavötn

links to: introduction and index - previous day - next day

Monday 29th August 1977

Another journal extract. Neville and I are now well into our guided walk, trekking in the south of Iceland with ten others. Today we move hut again, but by a roundabout route. Our walk goes from Skaelingar to the top of Gjátindur mountain (3,068 feet, 935m), then down through the Eldgjá canyon to Álftavötn (or Alftavatn). The canyon contains the 130 foot (40m) Ófærufoss waterfall. These features can be seen on the map. The huts are marked kofi (shelter).

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

The first thing we have to do is cross a river. Now this and one crossed yesterday are easy, but soon we come to a larger river which necessitates the rolled-up-trousers, bare-feet-in-boots technique to keep your socks dry. This causes me concern because my soft, canning factory, Wellington-boot steamed heels now carry sticking plaster which soon rubs unstuck when wet. I should have done more walking before coming, but there wasn’t time. My one practice day was not helpful because I wore new boots, so my heels had blisters before I came. I brought my older boots to Iceland, but the damage is done.

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

Ascending Gjátindur, we leave the rock pillars and green of Skaelingar behind, and crunch up through gravel to gain height. We see another group in the distance, the first we have encountered so far. Paul, whose job it is to know who else is in the area, says it is a party of Germans. Whilst we, hardened rucksack-carrying explorers, have trekked overland on our own legs to get here, it amuses us to hear they have travelled to within a few miles by bus. Mockingly xenophobic remarks from nineteen-fifties war stories are heard, including the term “schnitzel-eaters”. Paul then admits that Dick Phillips runs a similar trip called the Walkers’ Motor Tour in which participants are able to bring luxuries such as spare socks. This too is scoffed at, the ‘L’ becoming an ‘N’.

From Gjátindur we see distant views of ice caps and volcanic cones, and below, the extraordinary ‘fire canyon’ of Eldgjá, the largest volcanic canyon in the world. Apparently, it just opened up several hundred years ago. It is nearly 900 feet deep (270m), between a quarter and half a mile wide (600m) and 25 miles long (40km). Its first recorded eruption in A.D. 939 is thought to have caused temperature drops of 2oC as far away as Central Asia. The ash cloud made the summer of A.D. 940 the coolest in Europe for 1,500 years. 

Eldgja, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977
Eldgjá from Gjátindur

“Eld” translates as “fire” and “gjá” as “canyon” – hence “fire canyon”. “Tindur” is “peaks, thus  “Gjátindur” is “canyon peaks”. “Skaelingar” might mean “skeletons” which seems to make sense with the rock pillars. Google translates today’s destination, “Álftavötn” or “Alftavatn”, as “Swan Lakes”, which surely can’t be right, but “vötn” or “vatn” does mean water. We seem to be getting somewhere, except with “Sveinstindur”.

Four of us, oddly the four that went on our own road trip on Thursday, are having camera problems, evidenced by the blue lines on the pictures. When I try to rewind the film, it breaks inside the camera. Later, after dark, I open the case inside my sleeping bag, rewind the film by hand and manage to slot it back into the cartridge, but much of it is ruined. For pictures from the floor of the canyon, I again have to turn to the internet.

Gjátindur from Eldgjá

We descend the thousand-foot scree slope to the valley floor and begin to walk its length. It is flat-bottomed with near-vertical sides, just like a geomorphological diagram. After some time we reach the Ófærufoss waterfall which flows in from the side in two steps. Above the lower step the water has eroded a natural bridge around ten feet in diameter and twenty feet long. We climb up to walk across [it collapsed in 1993]. 


Later we stop beside a round mound around thirty feet high. Bridge School Mike climbs up to look and discovers it is hollow. We all climb up to look.

Suddenly we turn down a dark, steep-sided passageway between five and fifteen feet wide and thirty feet deep, perhaps the course of an old river. It is a very strange volcanic landscape.

Because of the indirect route taken, with its ascents and descents, today is the longest walk so far. By now we are stringing out. Paul decides to wait near the top of a hill in a bitterly cold wind for everyone to catch up. He tells us the Álftavötn hut is visible from just over the top and that the front runners have gone on ahead. I am walking quite slowly with blistered heels, but come across Neville waiting about a hundred yards ahead of Paul.

“Watch it, he’s ruthless. He doesn’t care if you go wrong,” Neville reminds me, but I decide to risk it and limp slowly on. About half an hour later I see Paul and the others overtaking me high on a ridge to the right. What he has not told us is that there is a river hidden in a gorge between where he had been waiting and the hut, and that there is a natural bridge about a mile upstream. I double back and eventually catch up with Debbie, Dennis and Ed the translator at the back just before the hut. They are even slower than I am. 

Meanwhile the bridge school “G.T. boys”, as Debbie and Dennis call them (do I detect slight hostility?), have had to wade the river. It is wide, deep, and fast-flowing, and they get wet. Moral – don’t go off in front. That’s the second time I’ve said that.

(next part)
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Thursday 19 August 2021

Barack Obama: Dreams From My Father

Barack Obama:
Dreams From My Father: a story of race and inheritance (2*)

It took me ages to get through this and I have to confess I did not particularly enjoy it. Sorry, but by my scheme that’s two stars.

I got it after reading a newspaper article by Obama, which I thought impressively written. You see it in the book. His descriptions are magnificent. For example, when watching the dawn on an African safari:

To the east, the sky lightens above a black grove of trees, deep blue, then orange, then creamy yellow. The clouds lose their purple tint slowly, then dissipate, leaving behind a single star. As we pull out of camp, we see a caravan of giraffe, their long necks at a common slant, seemingly black before the rising red sun, strange markings against an ancient sky. (p355)

Clever as it is, the effect throughout the whole book is exhausting. There is something too precise, too calculated, lacking in feeling. Whether he is describing community meetings, thinking about what family means, or discussing how white people treat black people, it is overwhelmingly analytical, without warmth or humour. There are also too many long passages of apparently verbatim dialogue which seem to be concocted just to give us large amounts of information, for example about Kenyan tribal customs. 

There is an agenda here. I suspect that when he began to write the book as a law lecturer in the early nineteen-nineties, he already had a political career in mind, and was being careful not to give too much away.

Yet he tells us a lot – as if writing about someone else. It is a memoir of his life from early childhood to law school. There are three sections:

  • Origins covers his early life in Hawaii and Indonesia, at College in Los Angeles and at University in New York.
  • Chicago describes his work as a community organizer in Altgeld, a poor, black area of Chicago.
  • Kenya tells of his first visit to his large extended family in Kenya.

Obama has an interesting background. He had a well-educated, high achieving but absent Kenyan father who had numerous children to different mothers. Obama’s own mother was white. She remarried an Indonesian man and they moved to Jakarta. At the age of ten he went back to his white grandparents in Honolulu where he attended a private preparatory school. He then went to college in Los Angeles and to Columbia University, New York. Afterwards, he became a community organizer in Chicago. He visited his extended family in Kenya for the first time at the age of twenty-seven before going to Harvard Law School.

Throughout his account of these years, he repeatedly reflects upon race relations in America and elsewhere, and his own racial identity. He writes about the attitudes between whites and blacks, deprivation in Chicago and the legacy of colonialism in Kenya: serious ideas in complex wordy language; what you might expect of an academic lawyer and politician.

You might say that, as someone privately educated, brought up in multi-racial Honolulu by white grandparents and privileged, it cannot apply to him, but he is non-white and perceived as such, and that has implications. I still think the book too long, that all the race stuff interferes with a cracking story. He looks for prejudice everywhere. Do white tourists really visit Nairobi to experience Isak Dinesen’s Africa and admire portraits of Hemingway surrounded by grim faced-coolies in the Lord Delamere Hotel [p314]?

His mother and grandparents, by the way, were called Dunham. Their ancestors were already in America in the sixteen-thirties and the Dunham surname may have been assumed. Links to Dunham settlers from England are speculative.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Sunday 15 August 2021

Walking In Iceland 5: to Skaelingar

links to: introduction and index - previous day - next day

Another extract from the journal: Neville and I are on an organised walking tour in Iceland, backpacking with ten others and a walk leader. We spent all day yesterday cooped up in a hut because of gale force winds and hailstones. Not the best start to the walk.

Sunday 28th August 1977

The morning begins with light drizzle, but yesterday’s impossible wind has gone. The day gradually improves until by evening there are sunny periods.

At last, some walking!  After yesterday’s forced incarceration we are moving from Sveinstindur to Skaelingar, a trek of about ten miles. We set off up a long hill. I find myself easily at the front, with lots of stamina after the summer in a canning factory. Twelve-hour nights spent cleaning machinery have boosted me from student infirmity to super-fitness.

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

A small group we now refer to as “the bridge school” shoot off ahead, almost missing a river crossing and change of direction. I keep in sight of Paul, the walk leader, as he is the only one who knows the way. “If they’ve got the energy to go off in front, they’ve got the the energy to come back,” he mutters. Moral – don’t go off in front. 

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

We come to a steep slope down to the edge of a lake. The surface resembles ball bearings on a corrugated iron roof. I descend rather more quickly than intended. Neville watches hopefully, camera at the ready, but my canning-factory hardened hands control it without injury. Later I tread carelessly and fall, bruising my hip, which does not bode well for restful nights. After then dropping behind the front runners for a while, I put on an hour’s sustained speed to catch Paul and the bridge school just as we near the hut.  

Skaelingar, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

How superb it is compared with Sveinstindur. In fact, Skaelingar is two huts. We use the smaller one for cooking and eating as it is draughty but with a wooden floor. The other hut, the stable, is palatial, with a comfortable mossy floor, so we use it for sleeping. There is plenty of room to spread out with wide spaces at both sides of your sleeping bag to avoid second-hand bad breath. Water is available from streams running into the nearby River Skaft. I even wash my hair in the evening sun. The cold produces a force-ten headache.

Skaelingar, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977
Rock pillars at Skaelingar

All around Skaelingar are strange, knobbly pillars of rock, many of them hollow. They can be eight feet high and three or four feet wide (2.4m x 1m). According to local folklore, they were left from a war between trolls. They were actually formed underwater by lava seeping up from a lake bed, possibly as recently as 1783 when volcanic activity created a temporary dam.  

As well as better weather, the climate has improved socially. Everyone now gets on like old friends. It is a well-educated middle-class group. In addition to me and Neville, there are three chemists, a factory inspector, a landscape architect, a Brussels translator, a medical researcher, a personnel administrator and two other students one of whom is a mature teacher trainee. Paul, the leader, also did languages at university. Three are in their thirties, the rest of us in our twenties.

The landscape architect works for the Forestry Commission. What a break for him: an island with no trees.

The only girl in the group, Debbie, is here with her boyfriend, Dennis. She must be finding things very awkward. As I round the corner of a lava pillar, I see her with pants down. I quietly retreat.

One of the chemists has been calling Dennis, ‘Des’, having misheard his name when Debbie said what they are. Being cautious, I hadn’t been calling him anything. I’d thought she said their names were Debbie and Dilys

Some gentle teasing is starting to occur. The four we call ‘the bridge school’ seem completely unaware of anything beyond the cards. Someone suggests they need a portable card table that folds down from the back of a rucksack so they can play as they walk, oblivious the wonders of the surrounding landscape.

When it emerges that four of the group are from Manchester, someone goes into a long story about being there and watching vandals shave the paint off parked cars. “What, with a razor blade do you mean?” someone asks. “No, with an electric one,” someone else suggests.

Thrown together like this in remote, overcrowded huts, it is becoming clear there is plenty of scope for for getting on each other’s nerves. One good way to irritate others is to pontificate erroneously about chemistry in front of three professional chemists who cannot get a word in edgeways. Another is to bullshit about languages in front of linguists. Sveinstindur does not mean ‘pig mountain’. But the best way of all, bearing in mind that in the dark we only have a weak camping light, is to wear a reading torch that straps to your head and blinds everyone you look at. 

(next part)
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Tuesday 10 August 2021

Another Health Gadget

I suspect at present we are in just as much danger of catching covid as ever. I don’t believe the numbers. People are mixing more. Several in our village have it. They’ve stopped bothering to report it. Many are turning off the app, assuming they had it in the first place. Even our elected leaders are bending the rules. It’s sensible to be sensible.

I read Piers Morgan’s account of catching covid at the Wembley football final. I’m aware he’s an arrogant know-it-all but he has my sympathy in this. Despite being fully vaccinated, he had an awful experience: high fever, aches, coughing; “definitely the roughest I’ve felt from any illness in my adult life” he said. He makes the fair point that without vaccination it is likely he would have been considerably worse. It may even have saved his life.

His respiratory consultant (lucky him!) said to monitor his arterial saturations and to seek help if they fell below 93%. 

Obviously, you can’t monitor your blood oxygen levels if you don’t have a gadget, so, for £16, I got one, just in case any of us at home catch covid. 

And when you’ve got one of these oximeters you can’t resist playing with it. I’m mostly somewhere between 96% and 99%. But what if you take a reading when you’ve been active or exercising (still 96-99%)? What does it show if you clip it on your toe (oh dear, a bit lower, I hope I’ve not got vascular disease)? How low can you make it go?

Did you know that if you stop breathing until you can’t resist any longer, and then push it a bit more by counting slowly to 10 before you breath in, nothing much changes except your pulse rockets up. Thankfully, you then breath in. And about thirty seconds later, when the blood gets to the end of your finger, you might have managed to get it down to 86%. Beat that!

Now, I wonder if it works with cats. Would it go best on Phoebe’s paw or on the end of her tail?

Saturday 7 August 2021

Walking In Iceland 4: Stormy Weather

links to: introduction and index - previous day - next day

Saturday 27th August 1977

Yesterday, the first proper day of our guided walk in Iceland, we arrived at the Sveinstindur hut near the western edge of Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest ice cap. We are to stay here for two nights. 

Sveinstindur, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977
Just after arrival at the Sveinstindur Hut

Today’s itinerary directs that we ascend the remaining 1150 feet (350m) to the top of Sveinstindur mountain (3585 feet, 1093m), one of the most magnificent viewpoints in Iceland. It boasts panoramic views of Vatnajökull and five other ice caps, the twelve-mile-long lake Langisjór, winding rivers, hundreds of mountains, volcanoes, and distant horizons in all directions.  

Unfortunately, yesterday’s bitter wind has brought terrible weather. Paul, the walk leader, reluctantly declares the day to be a ‘holiday’. The weather really is awful. We stay inside the hut where it sounds even worse because of rain drumming on the corrugated iron roof. Fortunately, nowadays, I can turn to the internet to pinch pictures of what we missed. 

This is a total surprise to me. I had absolutely no idea what it could be like up there until I saw these. Even if we had made it, visibility would have been nothing like this.  The first picture looks east towards Vatnajökull, the second in the opposite direction.


Views from Sveinstindur

The hut is small for the incarceration of thirteen people, but we have to accept that Paul knows best. At one end, a bridge school has started. Others read books. Some, complaining of a restless night, go back to sleep. One by one, even those who are awake get back in their sleeping bags to keep warm.

I join in card games for a while, and then, for something to do and to escape the state of lethargy into which most have fallen, I go for water, twice. This involves a ten minute walk each way, up a hill, down again and then across a kind of beach beside some flooded mud flats, and then over another promontory to a trickling stream.

Ascending the hill takes no effort, you simply sail up in the wind, but returning is a step by step struggle against flying hailstones. Frequent back-to-the-wind rests are needed. On the final descent down to the hut you have to keep sitting down so as not to be blown away. It is the strongest wind I have ever experienced. At least it makes your hands so cold you cannot feel string of the bucket cutting into your fingers. What a pity we can’t use the gritty water from the nearer mud flats.   

Although Sveinstindur mountain is hidden in cloud, the weather seems slightly better at lunch time, but by tea time it is desperate again. Apart from the business of cooking and washing up we continue to vegetate inside the hut. 

The huts are maintained by parishes for use by shepherds during the October sheep round-up. The remoteness and distances involved make it necessary to do this on horseback, so the huts are both stables and human quarters. 

At Sveinstindur, the single hut doubles up for both purposes, the human area at the rear being raised by three or four feet to form a sleeping platform. I get a spot on the lower floor. It would be a lot warmer if we had a horse, as the Irving Berlin song makes clear:

The snow is snowing and the wind is blowing
But I can weather the storm
What do I care how much it may storm
I’ve got my horse to keep me warm…
The other well-known Irving Berlin song composed during his secret, anonymous and undocumented holiday with Icelandic sheep herders was:
putting on my jumper,
putting on my jumper,
putting on my jumper...

Fred Astaire was scripted to sing this in the film Top Hat but refused on the grounds that traditional Icelandic jumpers are inelegant and wearing three made him too hot for dancing. 

There are warming mugs of cocoa at bedtime. Why do those with the weakest bladders bag the spots furthest from the door so they have to pick their way in pitch blackness over the lumps of snoring sleeping bags strewn across the floor? They risk falls, injuries and very abusive language.  

                                                     *                    *                    *

For the orienteers amongst us, here is a 1:250,000 map of the area in 1977 (four miles to the inch or 2.5 km to the centimeter). The blue arrows indicate the positions of the first four huts, with Sveinstindur centrally towards the top. The first picture above looks east towards where ‘Siujökull’ is written on the map, and the second in the opposite direction along the ridge of ‘Graenifjallgardur’. Our trek will later continue to the south of this ridge (click here for a greatly enlarged version of the map).

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977

(next part)
I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Tuesday 3 August 2021

A Walk to the Post Office

Walking in the countryside, when it has purpose and destination, feels like walking in the past. It reminds me Belgium, the country road between Hugo’s, my foreign language exchange partner, and Jean-Pierre’s, a friend’s language exchange. Or the walk along the river from my grandma’s house to my aunt’s smallholding in the village where they lived; and later too, when my aunt moved to a remote farm at the end of a long lane. My grandpa used the same paths to work in the paper mill, two miles there in the morning, two miles back at night. It can’t have been much fun in bad weather. And, when there was no work, it was three miles each way by fields and river bank to the next village to claim the dole, which was every day in the nineteen-thirties. People walked everywhere. No rush. No worry. Sun, wind, rain and birdsong, you got there in the end.

About a month ago, Sue My Quiet Life in Suffolk took her camera on A Walk to the Post Office. The walk to what is currently our nearest Post Office, provided it’s not too muddy, is two-miles of true joy. Last week, we had a parcel to send, so taking a lead from Sue, I took my camera...

across a playing field

up through the woods at the far side

across two fields to the secluded hamlet in the distance, this is the first field

and this is the second – all beginning to look very dry at this time of the year (this was before last week’s rain) – it was much more green and pleasant a few weeks ago before they cut the waist-high grass. Should have brought my camera then.

through the hamlet and along the drive

leaving by steps over the wall to cut diagonally across another field where the grass was also higher until recently

to walk a short way along a country road

which we leave by another stile to cross another field – uh uh! looks like trouble – Jersey calves. They run towards us – I think they want to play human football.

Phew! Not sure whether they are heifers or bullocks. Looking back, they think they have seen us off but with a bit of panicky shouting, clapping and arm waving we got through to where we wanted. That one in the front group on the right came running round from the back like Raheem Sterling

just one more field to cross

then up a steep hill 

as we gain height we can take in the views

just a short way to go now along a busy road

and we’re there

Oops. Forgot to take a picture of the ice creams. 
Went back by a different path to avoid the bullocks.

Sunday 1 August 2021

New Month Old Post: Siemens A55

(Updated from original post of 22nd June 2016)

Nokia 6310 Sir Philip Green

There were gasps of astonishment as billionaire Sir Philip Green, answering MPs’ questions about the BHS department store scandal, checked his texts on a cheap, twelve-year-old Nokia 6310. Surely, you would expect him to be able to afford the latest Diamond Rose iPhone.

All kinds of reasons why he might be using such an obsolete device were suggested: the Nokia was made to last; battery life is outstanding; he does not want constant email interruptions; pre-GPS phones are not easy to track; he is penny-pinchingly mean; he likes playing Snake 2

Siemens A55 mobile phone

Who knows? Maybe all of these. That was in 2016. But I’m still with Sir Philip, especially the penny-pinchingly mean. Here’s mine – even older – a Siemens A55 bought October 2003. It’s a phone. It does texts. It works. And no, I do not play Stack Attack, Balloon Shooter, Move the Box and Wacko.

With O2 Pay As You Go, you have to top up at least once every 999 days so as not to lose your account and credit balance. My diary (paper of course) noted I next needed to top up before 13th July, 2016. £10 would see to it. There is also a usage requirement but a weekly text from the bank meets that. Some weeks I forget to switch it on.


Sir Philip was in the news again with unflattering revelations about his other behaviours and attitudes. I added a note emphasising I did not share them. For example, I do not iron creases in my jeans (for comic effect I wanted to add that my wife does it for me, but actually I iron my own jeans). I still had my ancient phone, though. 


I still have it. I still use it. Will it make twenty years? Or will I have to get a smartphone to go places, buy things and prove my vaccination status? Even King Canute was forced to get one in the end.

I know it’s eccentric and appreciate that smartphones can be useful, but I’d hardly use one. I also fear what I’d be like. It’s something to do with having worked with computers. I like the idea of not being instantly contactable. I’d be constantly fiddling with it while eating, or fact checking during conversations. I like to let thoughts take their course rather than being hijacked first thing in a morning. That’s why I try not to switch on the computer until I’ve done at least a couple of jobs, like ironing jeans. The daft thing is, I could probably program them (phones not jeans, although maybe when we get smartjeans...).